eSports Update: Interview With Tom Cannon

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This interview is from 2011: The Year of eSports. Read on for the full version, or return to the original article.

Tom Cannon is one of the three people in charge of the Evolution Championship Series--a series of high-profile tournaments held throughout the year that culminates in a multigame open tournament on a Las Vegas stage.

How did you get started organizing tournaments? Is this your day job?
Organizing tournaments has never been my day job. By day I'm a software engineer. I first started running tournaments back in the early 1990s in arcades like Sunnyvale Golfland. This was before even the very first competitive online games, so in a way Street Fighter is the granddaddy of competitive gaming. Many people forget that there are guys playing Street Fighter today who have been hard-core competitive gamers for over 20 years.

When did you realize these tournaments were going to be a big deal?
"The moment" has got to be the "Daigo parry" at Evo 2004, which you can find on YouTube. The crowd response from Daigo's incredible comeback was no less than what you see at traditional sporting events. That's when I knew that fighting games could ignite people's passion in the same way that sports do, but the problem was that we didn't have the right game yet. The fighting games that we had back then were too targeted at the hard-core fighting-game fans, and not gamers in general.

That all changed when Capcom released Street Fighter IV, with fantastic 3D graphics and gameplay that was simple enough to appeal to casual gamers but deep enough to hold a competitive edge. Now, nearly every week there is a pretty big Street Fighter IV tournament going on somewhere in the U.S., and most of these events are streamed online with tens of thousands of watchers. Street Fighter IV has become a budding spectator sport.

How does sponsorship work for tournaments and players? Where does the money come from for the SF side?
The sponsor pool isn't as big for fighting-game players, but that is changing with Street Fighter IV's popularity boom. Our 2010 stream was watched by over 2.4 million unique viewers. G4 did a piece on Evo 2010 that featured several top players decked out in their sponsor's shirt. Exposure is exposure. Fighting-game players don't need PCs and components to play their game, but these guys are being watched by an awful lot of gamers who do buy those products. That's why you're starting to see traditionally PC teams like Evil Geniuses pick up top fighting-game players.

How does the professional SF/fighting game scene compare to pro PC gaming or other console gaming?
The fighting-game scene has its roots in the arcades, which gives it a unique flavor from other pro gaming communities. First, in-person, face to face competition is really important for fighting-game players, so a lot of players think of the scene as almost a lifestyle. All of our most respected competitions are in-person instead of online. It's very common for players to get together and hang out in the days before or after a tournament, or to travel across the country to train together.

But beyond that, I honestly think the competitive communities have much more in common with each other than they think. At the end of the day, all these gamers play for the thrill of the competition and the drive to be the best at what they do.

I remember Evo had a crossover with MLG. What happened? What would it take for Evo to consider partnering up with other eSports organizations?

In 2005 Evo and MLG held a combined event in Las Vegas. MLG ran Halo, and Evo ran several fighting-game tournaments. It didn't really work out because we didn't work to build any synergy between the tournaments. It was just MLG doing their thing on one side of the floor and Evo doing our thing on the other.

I certainly think it's possible to include fighting games with other games at an event, but you have to work hard to satisfy the specific expectations of each gaming community so no one feels left out in the cold. Evo is always willing to partner with any other eSports organization. We do this for the love of the competition.

Evolution is arguably the most prestigious fighting-game competition in the world, and it has been growing by leaps and bounds in the last few years. How big is it now?

Evo took off like a rocket in 2009, where we had over 3000 attendees and over 1600 competitors across all our tournaments. We shattered those records in 2010 with over 4000 attendees and over 3000 tournament competitors. I think at this point we're one of the largest face-to-face tournaments in the world. We're certainly the largest fighting game tournament out there.

We believe strongly in open tournaments, which is why we have never instituted a player cap at any of our events. You don't have to win a qualifier or place in an online ladder to play in our world championship. Anyone can pay their entry fee and get their shot at the best players from around the world. If 10,000 people show up in 2011 (which is not an outrageous number when you think about both Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Mortal Kombat 9 dropping early in 2011), we will find a way to accommodate those players.

Is Capcom involved at all with encouraging Evo's growth and development? Has your relationship with Capcom changed over the years?

Over the past few years, Capcom has sort of fallen back in love with Street Fighter, and they've been very supportive of competitions like Evo. In the early 2000s there was a dark period where it was hard to get Capcom to take notice of the great events happening all over the country, but thankfully those days are gone.

Capcom supports us in a couple of ways, the most visible of which is by showing off unreleased fighters like Marvel vs. Capcom 3 at our event. This is a win for everyone. The fans get a sneak peek at the next great Capcom game, Evo gets an attendance draw, and Capcom gets first-hand feedback on their game from their most devoted fans.

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